SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 144 - December/January 2010/11

France: end of round one

THE EUROPE-WIDE offensive by the capitalist class has triggered waves of struggle. So far, the high-water mark has been set in France where, over two autumnal months, eight national days of action brought millions onto the streets. These came on top of two pre-summer holiday days of action in May and June. On Tuesday 19 October, the mobilisation peaked, with 3.5 million people protesting in 260 towns and cities. School, college and university students had come into the struggle in the previous week, and organised a national day of action on 21 October.

The fuse had been lit when president Nicolas Sarkozy announced that the pension age will rise from 60 to 62 years. This actually means that workers have to work until they are 67 before they get a full pension. In reality, Sarkozy and his right-wing government aim to dismantle the gains made by working-class people over decades of struggle. Public-sector provision is to be slashed. Thousands of jobs are to be axed, pay and conditions attacked. Workers’ rights are being pegged back.

Displaying an unerring class instinct, French workers and youth saw the attack on pensions as the thin end of this very thick wedge. They struck. They marched. They blockaded. Some rioted. And the movement of 2010 reached a level not seen since the public-sector showdown in 1995, which forced the government of president Jacques Chirac and prime minister Alain Juppé to back down on similar attacks.

During those 15 years, working and living standards have deteriorated. Privatisation or part-privatisation has eroded the public sector. Areas have been de-industrialised. This process, however, has not gone as far as in many other countries, the counter-reform agenda checked by working-class action.

It is the strength of the French working class, as well as its revolutionary traditions, which make developments there so important. The experience of the world’s greatest general strike, May-June 1968, is still seared on the memory of the ruling class. At that time, the workers could have brought an end to the capitalist system, which was hanging by a thread. Every major strike movement in France brings back memories of those times – for the working class, too.

The eruption of anger put massive pressure on the main union confederations, which were forced to call for action – and to do so repeatedly. They came together in the ‘intersyndical’, involving eight union confederations: CGT, CFDT, Unsa, FSU, Solidaires, CFE-CGC, CFTC and FO. The latter three pulled out soon after the Saturday 6 November protest day.

Much of the action was organised at a more local level. Strikes and blockades at oil refineries threatened to bring France to a grinding halt, especially when solidarity action from workers in Belgium stopped relief supplies crossing the border. The port in France’s second city, Marseille, was taken over by the workers who were also in dispute over the part-privatisation of port facilities. A flotilla of oil tankers was stranded offshore. Hundreds of waste incinerator workers at Ivry, south Paris, struck for three weeks, maintaining a 24-hour picket line.

We saw blockades of rail tracks and motorways, action by truck drivers, strikes by post, rail, bus, health, council and education workers. The majority of the public sector took action at one time or another. And, though more patchy, parts of the private sector also came out. But the action has been uncoordinated. Some workers struck solely on the strike days, while others took action for a few hours to attend the demonstrations before returning to work.

Despite the prevarication of the union leaders, the day of action on Thursday 28 October was still followed massively, even though the pensions law was going through parliament and it was clear it would be passed. By the following Saturday (6 November), however, most of the strike action had ended and the numbers demonstrating were down, but still remarkably defiant. As a young rail worker and CGT activist commented in La Voix du Nord newspaper: "It’s not over. It’s just half time". It actually feels a bit more like the end of the first round in a long bruising fight against a belligerent foe.

There is a lot at stake. Sarkozy has put his political career on the line. He came to power boasting that he would erase the memory of 1968, and saying that, when strikes happen in France, no one notices any more. What an arrogant, deluded idea! He is determined to drive through his counter-reforms, nonetheless. And he has unleashed the full force of the state. The paramilitary CRS were sent in to break open the oil refineries. Riot police beat up and intimidated school students. Courts have handed out harsh sentences to youth. As president, he has drawn on sweeping powers designed for use in times of war – class war, in this case.

Against such an assault, only far-reaching action can succeed. The French working class deserves a leadership which can equal its preparedness to struggle. On the demonstrations and picket lines, for example, it has been commonplace to hear workers and youth talk about the need for a general strike.

Classically, a general strike poses the question of power. The working class brings the economy and society to a standstill. Then, in order to maintain emergency supplies and the provision of essential services, etc, it develops its own structures, which run parallel to the capitalist state. In such a situation, a revolutionary party with a mass base and which has earned the respect of the working class can lead that movement towards the need to transform society along socialist lines.

Even where that is not posed in the short to medium term, the need for generalised strike action is necessary when faced with an all-out offensive. During strike movements in France, today, workplace/college/school meetings, known as general assemblies, are widespread, often voting on a daily basis on what kind of action to take. These often link up with other groups to form ‘interprofessional’ general assemblies. In some towns there is quite a high level of cooperation between these groups. If these were coordinated in a truly systematic way – with elected delegates, accountable to those they represented, and who could be recalled if necessary – town and city committees could develop and form regional and, eventually, national workers’ councils. That would raise the strike movement to a much higher level.

A one-, two- or three-day public-sector warning strike on this kind of basis – with the additional participation of private-sector workers where possible – would send a very strong message to the government. If it did not back down, the action would have to be escalated, and the structures would be in place to organise it, and with the authority necessary to involve the private-sector workforce fully.

Of course, the intersyndical leaders had, and have, no intention of doing this. They are also conscious of 1968 and French revolutionary traditions. In fact, they are afraid that generalised action would quickly spiral out of their control. Instead, they call strike action merely to strengthen their position around the negotiating table and to let off steam.

At present, the movement has dipped – the latest ‘day of action’, called for 5pm on 23 November, understandably low key. It is not certain when the whistle will blow or the bell ring to continue the match. What is clear is that the government has set a course for confrontation. The workers and youth have no option but to resist. And they have shown that they are prepared to fight. This situation, however, also presents potential dangers. If there is no clear leadership and the workers’ energies are dissipated, exhaustion could set in with further attacks driven through.

We could see explosions of anger, desperate actions by individuals or isolated groups of workers, riots, etc. Eventually, reaction could even set in if the movement is held back, with right-wing and far-right groups trying to capitalise on the desperation over the lack of jobs and services, etc. Immigrants could find themselves used as scapegoats, and in an attempt to divide the working class – as we have seen already with Sarkozy’s victimisation of Roma people.

All sections of the political establishment will try to force current and future generations of the working class to pay for the capitalist crisis. Against the backdrop of the need for new workers’ parties internationally, France took a potentially important step forward with the formation of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in February 2009. Such an organisation could play an important role at a time of heightened class struggle and when tens of thousands of activists are looking for a way to defeat the capitalist political agenda – from the right-wing and the so-called left. But the NPA could only play such a role if it develops a programme to take the movement forward. And only if its banner clearly displays a genuinely democratic, socialist alternative to the savagery of profit-driven capitalism.

Manny Thain


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